Makom Joins the Complexity Conversation

Not every subject of study is likely to arouse complex feelings in the learner to the extent they do when modern Israel is taught to Jews around the world.

by Robbie Gringras and Yonatan Ariel

A foreign correspondent friend once confided to us about reporting from Israel. “Do you want to know why there are so many more foreign correspondents stationed in Israel than in most other places in the world? It’s nothing to do with antisemitism or double standards. It’s just because Israel is so incredibly fascinating and complex!”

Since Makom – the Israel Education lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel – is labelled by Alex Sinclair as practicing a form of Israel education that applies “attractive complexity”, and as such we are the “good guys” according to Barry Chazan’s pertinent critique, it will come as no surprise that we agree Israel is fascinating. We also agree with Chazan that Israel – as subject matter – did not “invent” complexity. Every subject worthy of study is likely to be complex. But not every subject of study is likely to arouse complex feelings in the learner to the extent they do when modern Israel is taught to Jews around the world.

In this sense, there are really only two sides to addressing complexity – and pretty much all of us in the field address them both, in different ways.

There is the complexity of the subject-matter itself – “Israel is endlessly complicated!” And then there is the complexity of the learners’ response to the challenges Israel presents to them. In this latter sense, complexity is sometimes used as a euphemism for “discomfort” – “My emotional and intellectual response to what I have learned about Israel is, for want of a better word, complex…”

It is this second aspect of complexity – the way in which the subject of Israel meets the learner in their particular environment – that demands special attention.

Let’s take the example of the Kotel, when looking at this second aspect of complexity. There is probably little discomfort (“emotional complexity”) for the Orthodox learner to contemplate the Kotel from his home in Paris. In contrast, the Reform learner from San Francisco may well feel a great deal of discomfort (“complexity”) when contemplating the Kotel and its prayer arrangements. Here we can see that this “complexity of emotional response” arises when something jars in the encounter between an aspect of Israel, and the learner, the teacher, and their environment.

When this is the case, there are two key issues for the Israel educator. First, we must pay careful attention to what is going on in the learners’ world.

Just as it would be dumb to insist that the young woman from San Francisco must learn about the Kotel in exactly the same way as the boy from Paris, so it would be silly to suggest that the Parisian must address Women of the Wall in his first encounter with the Kotel. (In our opinion, both would be enriched by learning of both perspectives, but the structure of the learning, the “way in” would need to be different for each.)

Second, (how soon) do we wish to resolve discomfort?

a. Some will say that discomfort is a healthy state for growth.

These educators will constantly try to lead the learner to a “higher level of confusion” (Yonatan Ariel). Hence they will challenge the San Franciscan to think about freedom of worship for those Jews who wish to pray on the Temple Mount, or to apply thinking about social justice to the fact that the Kotel Plaza exists only due to the demolition of the Palestinian Mughrabi quarter in 1967. The Parisian would be asked to juxtapose his belief in the unifying nature of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the value of Jewish unity, with the conflict and strife within the Jewish People at the Kotel.

Yet if the learner is in a constant state of confusion, how can we ensure they will not lose interest, energy, conviction? Some of us find such internal discomfort stimulating, but it can give others a headache…

b. Some will say that discomfort is the educator’s enemy, and we must avoid it at all costs.

Some suggest this because their students live in a hostile environment where they hear more than enough “negatives” about Israel. Their students need affirmations of Israel’s place in their Jewish identity that they may internalize with ease, so as to “balance the playing field” that is biased against Israel, or to offer the balm of comfort to students under attack. Others avoid discomfort for fear it will “turn off” the learner. They aim to teach only that which the learner can digest without going through any cognitive dissonance. They wish to ensure the students see their own Jewish identity reflected back to themselves in the Jewish State, and so expose them only to those aspects of Israel that chime in with the students’ value system.

Yet what happens when in the first case the learner finds a grain or two of truth in Israel’s detractors’ accusations? Or when in the second case the learner (inevitably) finds that Israel is not the USA, nor is it France? What tools and experiences can we educators provide to empower the learner to deal with their complex feelings (response) when they find Israel is more complex (subject matter) than they had thought?

c. Still others will argue that the best way to resolve the discomfort of learning about an Israel whose complexity makes it difficult to digest, is activism. If the subject matter – Israel – is unattractive to us, we must work to change it!

But at what price? If learners’ response to any piece of information that troubles them is to insist on changing that information to suit their desires, when will the learners ever question themselves? Shouldn’t educators help them to question their own assumptions when examining different approaches to the good life?

In building this field of Israel Education it is the mission of us all to find wise and flexible answers to these questions. We would suggest that our next few tasks might include:

  1. Creating and modeling more thoughtful and sophisticated ways for celebrating and affirming Israel. Not all celebration need be superficial, and not all critique should be miserable!
  2. Developing clearer models for how informed critique can lead to activism in a thoughtful way that includes like-minded Israelis. In this way we might move from “battering” to “bettering” – to the benefit of both the learners and Israel itself.
  3. Working hard to embrace all different approaches to Israel Education, even if they would seem to go against one’s own philosophy. If a commitment to complexity in Israel education is to mean anything, it must also welcome complexity in the many forms it may take!

Yonatan Ariel and Robbie Gringras are, respectively, the Executive Director and Creative Director of Makom, the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel.